Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China late 2019, the global medical fraternity has been working at record speed to develop a safe and reliable vaccine in laboratories across the world. The World Health Organisation's CoVax Programme, of which South Africa is a participating member, has sought to ensure equitable access for all countries, regardless of their financial status.
Countless countries are scrambling to acquire the vaccine. Countless countries except one - South Africa. Securing the vaccine for South Africa as soon as possible should be the government's number one priority right now. However, South Africa has missed the deadline for a deposit on the CoVax Vaccine Facility, not once, but twice.
It is unacceptable that government's tardiness is jeopardising our access to the vaccine.
When questions have been asked in Parliament to the President and Minister of Finance details have been sketchy and we have simply been told that government is dealing with this matter. It is clear, given the news of another missed deadline, that the government has not been dealing with this matter and that both President Cyril Ramaphosa and Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, have both seemingly misled the nation about this process:
Mere days ago the President stated, in an address to the nation, that South Africa will receive initial vaccines to cover approximately 10% of the population "in the early part of next year". He further stated that government had "concluded all the necessary processes to ensure its participation in the World Health Organisation's Covid-19 Global Vaccine Access Facility".
Minister Tito Mboweni has seemingly misled Parliament on this issue. When asked about government missing the first payment deadline, Minister Mboweni snapped at opposition parties claiming that we had gotten our facts wrong. Two days after the second deadline has been missed, it would seem our facts are spot on.
The fact that both payment deadlines for the vaccine's deposit have now been missed, would throw cold water onto claims that South Africa is anywhere near acquiring this vaccine.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) Leader, John Steenhuisen, will be requesting that Parliament's Ethics Committee urgently investigate these apparent mistruths by our President and his Cabinet which have life-threatening effects on our nation. It is unconscionable that our government can botch up the acquisition of a life-saving vaccine, that is safe and readily available, when thousands are at risk of dying from this pandemic.
Given the confusion and uncertainty surrounding the vaccine, the public now needs a clear and full explanation from Minister Mboweni on:
When specifically will the R327 million Covax deposit payment be made?
When will government issue the guarantees for the remainder of the amount owing - R1.8 billion?
Why has the government not committed the full R9.5 billion required to vaccinate 50% of the population? (60 million doses at $10.55 per dose)
Has South Africa signed a) a Committed Purchase Arrangement or b) an Optional Purchase Arrangement, and whichever agreement it has signed should be publicly released.
Since the December 4th exchange in Parliament, the DA has written to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and immunisations (now known simply as GAVI), the organisation coordinating the Covax funding facility for poor and middle-income countries, with direct questions on South Africa's participation in the vaccine programme. We have also submitted parliamentary questions to Mboweni himself. We await replies.
Minister Mboweni should be completely transparent on the exact financing arrangements the government has committed itself to.
Government has been scanty with the details of where we are in this process. Instead, we have been almost singularly focused on short-term strategies premised entirely on restrictions and a lockdown model. While we need to put out bush-fires in hotspot areas and to ensure that we manage the second wave in a way that saves as many lives and livelihoods as possible, this cannot be the only singular focused.
In order to ensure full transparency, the DA will submit an application to the Minister of Health in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act to request all the relevant information around a detailed vaccine plan.
Very little detail has been shared on the timeline of the payment and actual procurement of the vaccine. Experts have warned that the transportation, storage and allocation of the vaccine is a complex process that should be developed and shared with the nation. We need not wait until we acquire the vaccine before we know and understand how government intends to navigate the complex terrain that South Africa is.
We also have no idea what the prioritization of the rollout of the vaccine will be. Who will access the vaccine first, particularly as the government has elected to cover only 10% of the population. The health system's experience with mass vaccination is the measeals vaccination which reaches about 1 million children per year. Based on this system capacity, to even reach the 10% mark could take years unless we ramp up the capacity. This is no small task. We therefore need a comprehensive plan as soon as possible.
Furthermore, South African Health Products Regulatory Association has its own process. While it has stated that it will expedite the approval and processing of any vaccines in the country, we have no idea how long that will take and what kind of process they will follow.
This is why we require the detail on this plan as soon as possible. The continued vagueness and obfuscation, coupled with reports which suggest that we are missing the boat in this process are concerning and require strong leadership from the Ministers of Health and Finance as well as the President. Failure to do so would affirm our biggest fears: that we are nowhere near securing our initial payment for this vaccine; we will continue to languish in the crisis that we find ourselves in where many parts of the country are struggling with the resurgence and our vulnerable citizens and frontline workers are yet to be protected and prioritized.